Strengths and Weaknesses of Using a Camera Phone
The phone in a camera has certain strengths and certain weaknesses when compared to a dSLR or a decent point-and-shoot. For example:
- Lower-quality lens
- Smaller sensor (usually leading to more noise)
- Inability to zoom mechanically (fixed focal length)
- Shutter lag (a delay between pressing the shutter button and the photo being taken)
- Slow focus and/or limited ability to focus
- Very wide depth of field (usually)
- Limited (if any) control over exposure
- Always with you
Weaknesses as Strengths
But it turns out that even the weaknesses of a camera phone can be strengths when thought of properly. Ask almost any artist and they’ll tell you that by placing limits on themselves they force themselves to grow. I’ve found that’s the case with photography.
A lower quality lens and smaller, noisier sensor mean that the images I take with my iPhone aren’t going to stun anyone with their sharpness and purity of tone. As a result, I have to compensate. I have to use color, composition, and an interesting subject to create an image that has impact despite having slightly smudgy pixels (not a technical term).
Shutter lag and slow focus mean that I have to become excellent at timing my images–using techniques that film shooters may still remember like pre-focusing. That’s where you focus on the spot where you know your subject is going to be before they get there, then snap the frame when they arrive. It turns out that’s still a useful skill, even with a professional camera, because autofocus, even with the most expensive lens, is sometimes dumb, and doesn’t know that the child playing 20 feet away is more interesting than the shrubs 50 feet away.
The very wide depth of field on camera phones is probably the limitation that annoys me most often. Honestly, I could do without it. But that said, it reminds me of an important lesson that comes in handy when I’m shooting with my “real” cameras. Try this–focus your camera phone on something really close to the lens. It will probably take some adjusting to find out how close your phone can focus. Look at what happens to the background. It goes out of focus. You can’t do that further away, but reeeealy close to the lens it will work. Turns out the same optical principles are at work in a dSLR or a point-and-shoot. Here’s an example of this principle that I took using my iPhone and some monkeys:
Limited ability control exposure, while sometimes frustrating, means that I really have to think about light when I’m composing a shot with my phone. It also means that the shot I thought I wanted might not be possible at all, and I have to take an entirely different photo–perhaps a silhouette. Different ideas appear where I was previously fixated on one image.
Perhaps the most limiting and, therefore, most growth-inducing element of mobile photography is the inability to change the focal length of your lens. Much of the time, changing focal length means “zooming”, but it can also mean changing lenses on a dSLR. The problem with zooming is that it provides infinite different relationships between the subject, the photographer and the background. Yes, that’s tremendously important to me as a wedding photographer, but as someone who wants to grow in his art, it can become a stumbling block. This limitation forces me to break rules that I’ve generally photographed by–”fill the frame with faces”–and reinforces others–”don’t photograph people from too close”. It causes me to look for wide shots that wouldn’t have even been on my radar in the past. It also makes me get to know the focal length of my phone’s camera really well. At this point I know almost immediately whether a scene will look good with my iPhone or not, and that also gives me an idea of what lens to use if I want to photograph it with my “real” camera.
I hope you’re enjoying these little articles. If you have any questions please leave them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them. (To the smart-Alecs who will immediately want to ask a non-photography question, the answer is “42″.)